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Vermont DOC Agrees To Stop Punishing Self-Harming Prisoners

On May 18, 2006, the Vermont Department of Corrections (VDOC) settled a class-action lawsuit by agreeing to stop punishing prisoners who harm themselves. The VDOC further agreed to implement training, retain consultants, and document the mental health assessments of self-harming prisoners. Additionally, the VDOC will pay the litigation costs incurred, by Vermont Protection and Advocacy (VPA), a federally funded law office established under the Protection and Advocacy of Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 1986 (PAMII) to represent disabled prisoners.

The VPA?s lawsuit, filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleged the VDOC maintained an offensive and inhumane policy of punishing self-harming prisoners by segregating them, using unnecessary force, and taking away privileges. ?There are numerous instances of [these prisoners] being pepper sprayed, assaulted, isolated, restrained, held naked or barely clothed, and losing various privileges, including liberty, visitation and programming, based on self-harming behavior related to their disabilities for which they did not receive adequate treatment,? the lawsuit says.

One prisoner cited in the suit was confined in punitive segregation after slashing her throat in the prison shower. She was upset because her grievances regarding inadequate mental health care had been ignored.
Another prisoner was reportedly ?shackled to a bed for more than a week without adequate mental health treatment or supervision apparently because of his self-harming behavior.?

The VPA claims the VDOC has been aware of its substandard mental health care since it began filing formal grievances on behalf of the prisoners in February 2002. In March 2004 the Governor?s office published the findings of its investigation into the suspicious deaths of seven prisoners over the prior 18 months. That report criticized Dr. Paul Cotton, LLC., for failing to live up to his contractual obligations in the areas of quality assurance, staff training, and staffing levels.
Cotton took over the VDOC?s mental health contract in October 2003 after the former provider, Matrix, chose to bow out. Another report, this one released in April 2004 by the State Auditor of Accounts, echoed many of the findings of the Governor?s investigative team and additionally found that state contractors likely owed the State more than $140,000 based on ?false and inaccurate billing procedures.? Finally, on June 4, 2004, the VPA provided the VDOC with a report by psychiatrist Craig Van Tuinen, who cited ?systemic and serious instances of substandard and harmful provision, or lack of provision, of mental health services.? Specifically, Van Tuinen found the practice of punishing mentally ill prisoners for self-harming behavior ?unacceptable, counter-therapeutic, and inconsistent with community standards of care.?

Rather than proceed to trial, the VDOC decided to settle. Under the agreement prisoners must never be placed in punitive segregation for self-harming behavior. Those confined in administrative segregation for self-harming will receive an initial assessment by a qualified mental health professional and will retain the same property and privileges as other prisoners in segregation unless contraindicated and approved by mental health staff. In addition, mental health professionals must conduct documented daily and weekly visits of self-harming prisoners in segregation, evaluate prisoners who remain in restraints beyond an initial emergency, and consider alternative options if the restraints have failed to stabilize the prisoner after eight hours. VPA attorney Edward Paquin represented the prisoners. See: Vermont Protection and Advocacy v. Hofmann, USDC D VT, Civil Action No. 2:04-CV-245.

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Related legal case

Vermont Protection and Advocacy v. Hofmann